Hannah Betts: In the world of work, it pays for women to use an iron hand in a velvet and deftly stroking glove
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm," is that line that every schoolgirl remembers from Gone With the Wind – whether or not she is also a reader of de Beauvoir. For feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows. Indeed, new findings issuing from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics suggest that the theatricalisation of femininity can prove one of feminism's chief weapons.
Researchers set up experiments to measure the effects of female charm within negotiations. They defined this elusive quality as a management technique available to women combining warmth, friendliness and affiliation with flirtation, including playfulness, flattery and a certain sex appeal.
Said study discovered that feminine wiles boast economic benefits, improving the prospects of brokering success by up to a third (compare the argument of the LSE's Catherine Hakim in Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital). However, self-interest is all. For where flirtation with a selfish end was found to be powerful, simple friendliness was regarded as weak. Those deemed to wield a judicious balance included the rhetorically accomplished former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the beguilingly manipulative Joan Holloway from the series Mad Men.
Research director Dr Laura Kray remarked: "Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals." According to Kray and her team, charm evolved to meet the vexed issue that, while being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. A little light flirtation allows women to emulate male behaviour, while creating an alluring diversion.
And what a diversion it is. While anybody can don a pair of gratuitously small pants and have the likes of Boris Johnson slavering, charm takes work. Flirtation, as with the "manly" art of rhetoric, relies on sprezzatura – or artful carelessness. Internal cogs may be grinding, but the surface impression must be all gossamer insouciance, spontaneity – an iron hand in a velvet and deftly stroking glove.
Renaissance monarchs were adept at deploying the rhetoric of courtship to their own ends. However, ElizabethI ensured that flirtation became her reign's chief metaphor, creating a language within which her authority could flourish. In remaining single, she at once maintained control over her throne and created a situation in which she could be paid court to as everybody's mistress, in Britain and beyond.
This winning conflation of charm and policy saw her rule for almost 50 years, continuing to camp up her fairy queen femininity until the end. At the age of 64, she could be found ginger-wigged, gauzy-frocked, flashing her snowy bosom at the French ambassador, poised despite her "very aged" face and tombstone teeth.
Margaret Thatcher is oft compared to Gloriana, both in terms of her awesome flirtation prowess, and the self-centred ends that it served. Like her august predecessor, Thatcher lightened her hair, modulated her voice, and utilised her wardrobe, as the array of coquettish suits that this week goes on display at Christie's reveals. She too appreciated the tactical advantages of the lustre of pearls and a flash of naked skin. And, while she could inflict a handbagging, she could famously coax and cajole. If Alan Clark and his cronies were going to objectify her, then she was going to work it.
Seventies "dungaree" feminists are never going to be happy with such wiles – or such women – bolstering rather than battering down the facades of femininity as they do. However, as performance theorists such as Judith Butler have taught us, gender – like social interaction at large – is never without its theatrical element. And, while we do not want to be reduced to the sum of such fluting and fluttering parts, we underestimate their impact at our peril.
Strategic warmth, playfulness, flattery plus sex appeal is merely politeness with a soupçon of sexual spice. Like "being a gentleman" – an anachronism that similarly enrages – it's possible to reap the rewards of such civility without succumbing to the more regressive aspects of the entire performance. As no less a sophisticated thinker than Camus said: "Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question."
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